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  • Harlem Central
  • George Hutchinson (bio)
Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century, Sara Blair. Princeton University Press, 2007.
Becoming African Americans: Black Public Life in Harlem, 1919–1939, Clare Corbould. Harvard University Press, 2009.

It seems that Harlem just will not go away. Despite never-ending arguments that we must decenter Harlem from discussions of African-American modernism, or black modernism more generally, studies continue to focus on Harlem's (and the Harlem Reniassance's) centrality to important developments in American and diasporic black cultures—whether through its contribution to new forms of intimacy and sexual identities, its importance in the struggle for civil rights before the 1940s, its relation to the emergence of an African-American literary field, its relation to the emergence of black drama, its importance to the history of modern black painting and sculpture, its role in the development of black music between the world wars, and now its importance in the development of documentary photography, black photography, black modernist writing after the Harlem Renaissance, and the very idea of African American-ness in its twentieth-century form.1

Sara Blair's estimable Harlem Crossroads (2007) focuses on specific collaborations between black writers and white Jewish photographers that prove highly illuminating and sustain her thesis about Harlem as a dynamic place of encounter between uptown and down, literature and photography, black and Jewish identities. Blair's inspiration for the book began with a crumpled photograph of Richard Wright holding a camera which Ralph Ellison had carried in his wallet in the 1930s. This photo, she argues, marks a genealogy linking African-American writers to each other at mid-century through photography's role in shaping their "self-imagination, cultural politics, and literary work" (113). The argument works admirably for [End Page 405] Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, but is less convincing in relation to the other authors she treats—chiefly Himes, Killens, and Hansberry. But the book is also about how documentary photographic projects by Lower East Side Jews in Harlem, in some cases collaborating with black writers, affected the course of twentieth-century American photography. While several of the documentary or photo-text projects on which the study focuses never came to fruition, and others were commercial failures, Blair makes the case that they had a major impact on the people involved in them, and thus on the evolution of American photography and the African-American novel.

According to Blair, the overwhelming majority of American documentary photographers in the wake of the Leica revolution of the 1930s were Jewish, and this explains the evolution of documentary as a genre committed to "the marginal and forgotten as subject matter and to the purview of the outsider or the alienated as a point of stylistic departure" (14). Blair wants decisively to distinguish between the documentary practices of her Jewish photographers and that of "state sponsored documentary" (often criticized of late) which emphasized the indexicality of the photographic image, its claims to represent the real thing (17). Lisette Model, for example, saw the photograph as an "analogy" of the physical world, not a replica or indexical trace. The social dislocation and marginality of Jewish photographers, and in some cases their sensitivity about being outsiders in black Harlem, accounts for their tendencies in Model's direction; working against nostalgia and an attraction to "unmediated reality," they instead investigate underlying social relations, the unknown and mysterious dimensions of experience of which we are made unconscious by routine (17). This, for Blair, explains why black writers were attracted to these photographers and in some cases would pick up the camera themselves.

Also important to Blair is a stark differentiation between "renaissance" and "post-renaissance" collaborations between whites and blacks, divided by the Harlem riot of 1935. In her formulation, the Harlem Renaissance was characterized by unreflective white slumming, patronage, and cultural appropriation, along with "patient manipulation" on the part of black leaders bent on uplift (David Levering Lewis qtd. in Blair 20). As opposed to interracial relationships of the renaissance, the relations between Jewish and black artists and intellectuals of her period developed into "sustained, close collaboration" (20). This sort of distinction can hardly stand up to close...


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pp. 405-422
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